Rock Killer by S Evan Townsend by S Evan Townsend - Read Online

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Rock Killer - S Evan Townsend

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Chapter One

…someone in this room will be dead.

Charlene Jones sat in a high-sided bathtub, trying to calm down. She was angry: angry with Frank, angry at Space Resources Incorporated, and angry with herself for being angry. She’d planned for a special night with Frank, but he suddenly had to work late. She’d wasted her bath. About once a month, she could afford to take a bath instead of a quick shower; and she was wasting the luxury she’d normally allow to envelop her by being angry.

She sloshed around in the water, which, in the moon’s gravity, moved like viscous oil but still managed to almost slop over the tub’s tall sides. The way water moved on the Moon fascinated her and she spent some time doing amateur fluid dynamics experiments playing in the bath as she did as a child. She soaped up a washcloth and rubbed it over her dark skin; Frank called it chocolate-cheesecake colored. Charlie’s maternal grandmother was as black as the lunar sky and Charlie had benefited from having such a grandmother in more ways than one. A soap bubble escaped from the washcloth, enjoying its freedom for a brief second before imploding. Charlie wondered what a bubble bath would be like. Maybe she’d have to bring some back from Earth next time. That amused her: bubbles on the Moon should last forever, taking six times as long to fall to the floor; or, actually, because of terminal velocity, longer even than that. If I used some soap between my fingers and blew, she thought, remembering how she’d made bubbles in the bath as a kid. She was watching a bubble’s ponderous fall when the computer beeped obnoxiously, signaling it was receiving a communication. On, no video, Charlie ordered, annoyed at having her fun interrupted. She had almost forgotten her anger.

The computer screen was behind her and she couldn’t see the face that appeared. This better be good, Charlie growled, not masking her annoyance. The answer didn’t come for a few seconds, annoying her further.

It is, an all too familiar voice said.

Charlie almost jumped out of the water. Mitch?

Two seconds later. Yes.

Charlie turned in the tub to look at the computer screen. Space Resources Incorporated’s Head of Security Mitchel’s face stared back at her. Oh, it’s you, Mitch, she said, Computer, video on.

If Mitchel responded to seeing Charlie in the tub, his face didn’t show it. Is Frank handy? he asked after the light-speed delay. Charlie had forgotten how that almost two second light-speed delay grew interminably long during conversations with persons on Earth.

No, Charlie answered. He’s working late. He’s in the conference room giving the newbie briefing. A new batch arrived unexpectedly and you know he won’t put off the initial briefing. She heard a little anger seep into her voice.

Two seconds later Mitch frowned. Hmmmm. I can’t interrupt that. I’ll call in the morning–your morning.

Is it important? Charlie asked.

Mitch shrugged. Somewhat, but I have to talk to him personally.

Okay, I’ll tell him you called.

Thanks, Charlie, Mitch said. And Charlie?

Yes?

Don’t be too mad at him.

Charlie smiled. I won’t.

Oh, by the way, he mentioned. The next asteroid– he looked off screen, nineteen sixty-one– its tender will be leaving in a few weeks. Director Alex Chun—he’s a good man—and Security Chief Bill Thorne. He could use a second. He’s good, too.

I know, Mitch. Frank’s told me about both of them.

You want to go? I could pull some strings. Thorne and Chun both owe me favors. It’d be a good career move.

Charlie frowned. I don’t know. I’d like to stay here with Frank.

Charlie, Mitchel admonished, you know there are people here that don’t consider anything inside the orbit of the Moon to be ‘space.’ If you don’t get some trans-lunar experience–

I know, Mitch, she cut him off. But, she hesitated, biting her lower lip. I don’t know.

Well, think about it, okay?

I will. Bye, Mitch.

Good-bye, Charlie. The screen went blank.

Charlie shook her head. A computer call from Earth to the Moon was about the most expensive long-distance call possible—one of the few long-distance calls that cost anything—and Mitch had used time to berate her about her career. Although Mitchel was the number one security man in the company, it wasn’t he that would be making decisions about her future. He’d already helped her by getting her away from guarding the warehouse at the Esmeraldas space facility in Ecuador.

Maybe she shouldn’t be so mad, she decided. Frank was security chief for SRI’s lunar facility, located in Nippon/European Space Agency Lunar Facility One. Frank had also helped her by giving her more responsibility than he normally would give someone with her few years in SRI, based on how well he knew her. And, when she needed it, he was ready with advice and help. Between Frank and Mitch, it seemed someone was always helping her. She didn’t know whether to resent it or be thankful.

SRI didn’t mind that Frank was living with one of his subordinates as long as there wasn’t the faintest hint of favoritism, which meant Charlie got more than her share of shit assignments. Small price to pay, though–Frank was medium height and had a strong build with dark curly hair, and the blackest eyes that had penetrated her to the soul when she first saw them.

And maybe, she wondered, I don’t stay here because I want to stay with Frank. Maybe I stay here because I want to stay where I’m comfortable.

She settled back down into the tub and was working on another bubble when the claxon sounded. This time Charlie did jump out of the tub. The water stuck to her, flowing slowly down her lithe body. The claxon was reserved for dire emergencies: wall breaches, life support shutting down, incoming meteoroids. Charlie had never heard it before except in drills. Warning, the computer droned as if announcing the weather, intruders in access tunnel one.

***

While she was in the bathtub, Charlie’s lover, Frank DeWite, was pacing at the front of the briefing room moving with practiced ease in the low gravity. He looked at the newbies, fresh from training at the SRI Low Earth Orbit Facility. Seven male and five female sets of wide eyes watched his every move. Before six months are over, someone in this room will be dead, DeWite said. He waited while they almost unconsciously looked around. Who will it be? they were obviously thinking.

It could be you, DeWite said. And do you know what will kill him? He looked at a female. Or her?

No one responded.

Stupidity will kill them, DeWite said. You don’t have to die. ‘Stay alert, stay alive.’ They used to say that in war. We’re not at war but we do have an enemy. The Moon will kill you if she can. Space will kill you. Don’t let it. Don’t hurry through your suit inspection, don’t move too fast and rip your suit on a sharp rock or crack your faceplate. Remember, you may weigh one sixth less but you retain your mass and therefore momentum. It’s very easy to get going too fast to stop.

Again he looked over the room. "Sure, you’ve all heard it a hundred times. But one of you will still get stupid, and he, or she, will die and I’ll have to write a letter. If you know you’re stupid, let me know now and give me your next of kin’s address. I’ll get started on the letter.

Oh, he continued, one thing I always have to put in the letter is that there won’t be an open casket funeral. Have you ever seen a body dead from vacuum exposure?

Of course they hadn’t.

I remember my first time, DeWite said. "A young kid about your age named Joey Hernandez; died when he was murdered by someone who cut his suit open with a knife.

And that brings me to our other enemy. We’re SRI Security. We’re the first line of defense between SRI and those who would steal from the company, both tangibles and information. We’re the law off Earth where there is no law. Here on the Moon we’re under the jurisdiction of the NESA Alliance. He pronounced it nee-sa.

But, he continued, in the asteroid belt or Jupiter— Claxons sounding interrupted DeWite. A computer-generated voice was heard: Warning, intruders in access tunnel one. The computer droned the same message over and over and over.

***

The computer repeated the message as Charlie used her hands to scrape the water off herself.

Computer, quiet.

The claxon and message stopped.

As she reached for a towel a muffled explosion vibrated the floor. She used the towel to do a superficial drying job then pulled on her red security uniform. The jumpsuit stuck indecently to her damp skin. Underwear would have helped but that luxury was for non-emergencies. She ran to the closet, pulled out her pressure suit and, throwing it over her shoulder (the helmet painfully smacked her in the back; she ignored it), ran to the door in the loping gait one used on the Moon. As she pulled it open, she thought about putting on the suit but decided against it. The SRI facility was so compartmentalized that unless the immediate area one was in depressurized, it was safe not to wear the suit. Also, wearing a pressure suit in pressure was just a little less restrictive than a straitjacket in dealing with intruders that could be more dangerous that the possibility of decompression.

Other off-duty personnel were forming a confused cluster in the corridor.

If you’re not needed, go back in your room and close the emergency door, Charlie yelled. Most returned to their rooms, some left running toward the main facility. Charlie started running for the armory.

At the end of the corridor she started closing the emergency door.

Hey, damnit, open up, a voice came from the other side.

Smitty?

Yes, damnit.

Charlie pulled open the door. Smitty was standing there in a disheveled uniform. His hair was a tussled mess. He’d obviously been sleeping. He, too, had his pressure suit over his shoulder.

That explosion, Smitty said tensely as he followed her running down the corridor toward the armory.

The security door, Charlie growled, trying to keep the fear and anger from her voice.

Must have been, Smitty agreed.

***

Stay put and don’t move, DeWite barked to the room and loped out the portal. On the other side he closed the emergency door that formed an airlock with the regular door that had room for maybe one person. He turned to find an experienced security man named Prince running toward him carrying two pump shotguns. He tossed one to DeWite who caught it after it sailed a seeming impossible distance in the low gravity.

There’s no word from Check Point Alpha, Prince spat. We think they’ve gotten as far as the—

An explosion rocked the floor and the air pressure dropped momentarily.

They’ve breached the security door, Prince cried angrily.

DeWite pumped a shell into the chamber of his shotgun with almost unconscious, practiced movements.

Great, they’re inside and have access to everything. Who the hell are they? he yelled, and bounded down the tunnel in the direction of the door.

Hell if I know, Prince said, following.

DeWite started to smell acrid smoke. He stopped running. Got a radio?

Prince attached a radio disk to DeWite’s cheek. A small plug went in one ear. The men resumed running.

This is DeWite; I’m with Prince. We are moving toward the security door. What’s happening?

The voice that came back was high-pitched with excitement. The sounds of automatic weapons fire, punctuated with the boom of shotguns, were heard in the background. They started a fire in the computer memory room. I think they have thermite grenades. They seem to be moving toward— An explosion was followed by static.

Toward what? DeWite screamed in frustration. Their radio went dead, he explained to Prince.

Who was that? Prince asked, taking a corner. The smoke got thicker.

It sounded like Jimmy Nakamura. He was working in section two tonight, DeWite replied, trying to keep his voice level.

The shipyard, Prince exclaimed.

Damn, DeWite spat.

They passed the observation room. Hold it, DeWite said.

***

The armory was a large cabinet expediently located near the quarters. Three other security personnel were already there; one was Assistant Chief of Security Rodriguez.

What’s happening, Rod? Charlie asked, breathing hard from running.

I don’t know any more than you do, he replied as he put his ID card in a slot and punched a code onto the keypad. The armory opened. Rodriguez started passing out shotguns and bandoleers of shells. A few more security people ran up.

I need two of you to stay here and guard the living quarters, he said. He pointed at two of the newer arrivals. You and you–the rest are with me.

They started running toward the main SRI facility and passed a computer terminal.

Computer, where are the intruders? Rodriguez asked it.

The computer didn’t answer. Charlie and Smitty exchanged a look.

***

DeWite moved into the observation room and Prince followed.

The room looked almost exactly like a bar since it was a VIP lounge for watching ships land and take off. A large window looked over the shipyard, where various types of spacecraft were resting on the lunar dust. The window, made of Crysteel, invented by SRI’s orbital laboratories, began about half a meter from the floor and extended to the ceiling and was about five meters wide. Crysteel, made in a factory in Earth orbit one atom at a time, was almost as strong as aluminum. Its one weakness was a very high index of refraction due to tightly packed oxygen atoms. It made great lenses but was not good for use where a clear view was needed such as spaceship windows and pressure suit helmets. But the picture window in the lounge would have been impractical without the Crysteel.

Four pressure-suited figures were moving across the plain. The suits were not SRI issue and the figures were carrying submachine guns. DeWite recognized them as a South African made 9 millimeter caseless that were favored by criminals who bought them on the black market.

One, carrying a 40-millimeter recoilless rifle, knelt just a few meters from the window and aimed. Fire shot out of the rear of the weapon, dying almost immediately in the airless environment. A flame licked a small intra-lunar shuttle followed by an explosion. The ship’s skin crumpled and it folded in on itself in a slow, macabre death dance. Another explosion marked the rupture of the fuel tanks. Fire burned until the oxygen ran out.

***

Charlie followed Rodriguez down the corridor, stuffing shells into her weapon. They turned a corner and Rodriguez, moving too fast to stop his mass quickly, ran into a closed emergency door.

He moved to look at the tell-tales. Damn. Vacuum, he said. Jones, Smitty, you’re my best vacuum people. Get your suits on. We need to get help to the inside.

Charlie and Smitty moved into an open area and began the task of putting on the pressure suits. Charlie pulled on her suit and tried not to worry about Frank. He can take care of himself, she thought. But she also knew his conscience would require him to take care of everyone else, and that worried her more.

***

Goddamnit! DeWite exploded. We need to get to the airlock.

Just then one of the four figures outside noticed the two security guards. He tapped the others on their shoulders and pointed. The other three turned and again the recoilless rifle spat a fleeting flame. DeWite dove behind the bar—an easy task in the low gravity. The window exploded inward. Prince was thrown against the rear wall, his body shattered by the impact. Then the window exploded outward as the room decompressed. Prince’s body was slammed against the bottom of the window and sucked out into the harsh sunlight.

***

Charlie, the more experienced, took the lead out the temporary airlock formed by the emergency and normal doors. The passage was dark as the lights had shattered in vacuum from their internal pressure. There was an intense, actinic white flickering from inside the computer room. That might explain why the computer didn’t work, Charlie thought. The two moved quickly, weapons ready, to the room. One look inside showed it was empty except two bodies, and the computer had been destroyed by some kind of incendiary device; a little of it was still burning. They moved on, Charlie wondering what could burn in hard vacuum.

The corridor came to an intersection but closed emergency doors blocked two routes. As they turned down the only open passage, Charlie saw suited people silhouetted in the beams of their own lights. They weren’t more than ten meters away. She thumped Smitty on the chest and retreated around the corner before the intruders saw them. Smitty followed. They wouldn’t have heard them: there’s one advantage to working in vacuum. Charlie kneeled on the floor and carefully looked around the corner. She saw two people working on the airlock controls. One was rather fat. They were having trouble figuring out how to open the airlock that had gone into emergency mode. Good, they’re busy, thought Charlie; less chance they’d notice her and Smitty. She pulled her head back.

Okay, Charlie reported into her suit radio, we’ve got two unknowns at airlock 4582.

Armed? Rodriguez asked.

Yes, small weapons, look like submachine guns. We’re taking them out, right Smitty?

Damn right.

We can get help to you soon, Rodriguez said, sounding anxious.

Negative, Charlie answered. Hesitation kills. They’ll get out that airlock and then who knows where. Ready, Smitty?

Ready. He pumped a shell into the shotgun and Charlie repeated the motion on her weapon. It was a strangely silent action in vacuum.

They went around the corner. The fat one was looking right at them. She (Charlie could see it was a woman) started firing wildly, the muzzle flashes strobe-lighting her grimacing face.

Charlie and Smitty jumped back around the corner as the bullets impacted silently on the walls and floors.

***

DeWite heard the emergency door slam shut, locking him in the room. He knew it would never open until the pressure in the room equalized with the pressure in the hall.

He stood, aimed his shotgun, braced his leg behind to compensate for the low gravity, and fired. He was surprised he heard it at all. Must still be a little air in the room, some part of him thought.

The figure with the recoilless rifle was thrown back and blood ejaculated from its torn body. It was freeze-dried before it hit the lunar plain. The remaining figures turned with their weapons firing. DeWite barely heard the bullets hitting the wall behind him. His ears felt as if they were going to explode. He screamed, not in fear, but to empty his lungs to prolong his already forfeit life a few more seconds.

Pump, FIRE, Pump, FIRE, Pump was DeWite’s whole existence. Another figure crumpled, spouting blood. Then the bullets ripped into DeWite. Blood flowed like a fire hose. FIRE—DeWite could no longer stand, even in one-sixth gravity. He sank to the floor and died in a puddle of his blood that was boiling and freezing simultaneously.

***

You okay? Charlie asked, breathing hard with excitement, adrenaline pumping through her veins.

Yeah, you?

Yes.

What happened? Rodriguez demanded, his tension coming through the radio.

They saw us, Charlie said, watching the rounds hitting the metal structure of the corridor. Occasionally, she’d feel the vibration of the steel from the punishment it was taking.

When the bullets suddenly stopped, Charlie, again low, peeked around the edge. The airlock was closing with the intruders inside.

Damn, she spat and ran after them. She fired and pumped another shell into the chamber. But the door was closed and the pellets just scarred the white paint then bounced back at her. Most lodged harmlessly in the fullerene armor of her suit. One chipped her faceplate.

Charlie tried to stop before hitting the door. In her anger and excitement she had allowed herself to get going too fast. Her momentum slammed her into the thick metal airlock door face first. She heard a loud snap. A rivulet of a crack cut across her faceplate. A shrill whistle indicated air was leaking out of the crack.

Smitty came up behind her.

You okay? he asked.

No, she said, removing a shell from her bandoleer and shoving it into the magazine tube. Always have a full magazine, they’d taught her. Rod, they went out. I can’t pursue; I cracked my faceplate and I’m losing air.

I could go, Smitty said.

No, Rodriguez barked. Get Charlie to safety.

I’m okay, Charlie said. It’s a slow leak. I can get back by myself.

No, Rodriguez replied. Regulations —

Smitty, Charlie said cutting him off, go and stop them.

No, Rodriguez yelled, the radio distorting his voice.

Smitty started working with the airlock controls as Charlie walked quickly but carefully back to the provisional airlock.

Her faceplate shattered.

She started running and screamed, like they taught her, to empty her lungs. Holding your breath only increases internal injuries.

Her eyes and ears hurt unbelievably and her neck throbbed painfully. She began to weaken as she reached the emergency airlock and dropped her shotgun.

The controls seemed wrong; she couldn’t figure them out. Her legs stopped supporting her and she slid to the floor.

The airlock opened and strong arms picked her up and threw her inside. The door closed behind her and warm, sweet air smacked her in the face as it was bled into the ersatz airlock. When the pressure was close to equalized, the emergency door was flung open and Rodriguez pulled her into the corridor. The emergency door closed again. Charlie took long, deep breaths. Her throat felt as if she’d been inhaling a gaseous acid. There was a strange pulsating sensation at her neck. She reached up to feel it but Rodriguez batted her hand away.

Don’t touch it, you’ve got a vein protruding, he said to her gently. Then he barked an order to the assembled personnel: Get her to the medics.

Smitty came out of the airlock.

Smitty, she croaked. How? It hurt like hell to talk.

I heard the air rush out of your suit on the radio.

Thank you, she whispered. It hardly seemed adequate.

***

Charlie and Smitty walked slowly across the lunar landscape toward the observation lounge, both in their pressure suits (Charlie using her spare), and both carried shotguns. Charlie had been cleared by the doctor and insisted on going on this trek. The lounge emergency door was closed and the sensors indicated the interior was in vacuum.

Charlie’s stomach knotted as she moved. Two men were unaccounted for: Prince and DeWite. Frank DeWite, Security Chief and Charlie’s lover: Missing and presumed dead, Charlie thought, swallowing hard on her impending grief.

Rounding a corner of the facility, they got a view of the shipyard. The intruders had left three ships, but some weapon had fired upon all three. One was a crumpled metal mass.

Two human shaped figures were prone in the dust. Charlie felt her heart try to move into her throat.

We have two bodies in the shipyard, Smitty reported over his suit radio. Charlie hated him for the calm in his voice.

Understood, came back Rodriguez’s voice.

Then Charlie realized the pressure suits weren’t SRI design.

Her heart settled into its usual niche. Why did I volunteer for this? she asked herself for the nth time.

They went to the bodies. There were black stains on the ground around them.

These bodies are in bad shape, Smitty said. There are shotgun wounds and automatic weapons wounds to the head area.

Understood, Rodriguez repeated.

Charlie was looking at the grotesque tableau. Smitty looked toward the lounge.

The lounge’s window has been breached, Smitty said. There’s another body.

Smitty pointed. Charlie looked up. The body wore no pressure suit and was surrounded by debris sucked out of the lounge. Charlie’s heart began its upward migration. She had never seen a man that died in vacuum; she didn’t want her first to be Frank. They walked to the corpse. Smitty turned the body, which was literally frozen stiff. It’s Prince, he reported calmly. He and Charlie exchanged a look through faceplates. Grief and anger crossed the vacuum.

Charlie looked at the dead man. His face was calm, his eyes closed. He’d died before being thrown into the air-less shipyard. Blood was freeze-dried on his uniform and on the lunar dirt.

Do you see DeWite? Rodriguez asked. Charlie couldn’t help resenting this man who was warm and safe inside the facility while they looked at a dead friend.

Not yet, Smitty said, again, keeping his tone professional. We’re entering the lounge now.

Roger.

Watch that the shards of Crysteel don’t rip your suit, Smitty warned as Charlie stepped through the window.

I will, she replied, her voice still harsh and raspy from exposure to vacuum. For a moment, she wondered if this was another shit assignment to make sure she wasn’t getting any favoritism from Frank.

The lounge was a disaster. Anything that wasn’t nailed down had been thrown to the window or out of it. Liquor bottles had been smashed open and their contents vacuum-frozen.

The lights here, too, had shattered from internal pressure. Without air to refract the sunlight, anything in shadow was in pitch blackness. Charlie turned on her flashlight and passed its piercing beam around